Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 5; Rimsky-korsakov: Scheherazade / Nelsons, Bronfman [blu-ray]

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Still reeling from the previous night’s concert I was eager to hear Nelsons and the Concertgebouw in this mix of Classical and Romantic pieces. They are joined by the Israeli-American pianist Yefim Bronfman, who I’ve not heard in a very long time. I tend to associate him with the Russians – notably Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich – but he has recorded a fine version of the Beethoven concerto with David Zinman and his Zurich band (Arte Nova). As for the Rimsky, it’s one of those showpieces that seldom fails to please; and if the sonics of that earlier Blu-ray are anything to go by it should be a knock-out.
The Ruins of Athens, written to accompany August von Kotzebue’s play of the same name, is hardly a Beethovenian staple, but when it’s played with such affection it’s hard to understand why. Right from those opening figures on the double basses it’s clear this is going to be a performance of spontaneity and spirit, the camera cutting to key players when they get the chance to shine. And shine they do, the Concertgebouw as animated as they were the night before. On the podium Nelsons is equally alert, his boyish grin a sign that he’s having fun.
And who wouldn’t, with such thoroughbreds between the shafts? As for the concerto, a warhorse that seldom gets the performance it deserves, it’s played with tremendous brio. Bronfman fingerwork is clear and unmannered, and the orchestra responds with alacrity to Nelsons’ firm tug of the reins. Balances are generally fine, although the brass and woodwinds tend to leap out in the tuttis – some unnecessary knob-twiddling, perhaps – and the bass is not as firm as I’d like. Otherwise the Allegro is both passionate and elegant, and tempi are well judged; there’s plenty of thrust too, although at times momentum does flag.
Such lapses are rare though, Nelsons’ whipping his wayward steeds into line quickly enough. That said, the Adagio and Rondo-Allegro are more problematic. In the former the flute passage before the piano’s first entry is absurdly out of proportion – more intervention, perhaps – and Nelsons moulds the music far too much for my tastes. Yes it is beautiful, but it’s cloying and comes close to limpidity overload; as for Bronfman, his phrasing at the start of the Rondo is less easeful than usual. Even more distracting is the fitful progress, the music lacking the cumulative weight and growing tension one hears in other – more compelling – performances. It seems the audience have no such qualms though, demanding an encore. Bronfman duly obliges with a coruscating rendition of Chopin’s Etude in F major.
I so wanted to wallow in this concerto but alas I’m not likely to return to it in a hurry. At least there’s a consolation prize in the form of Scheherazade, whose terrifying start nearly blew me out of my seat. Having set the volume to a comfortable level for the Beethoven I was not prepared for such an assault on my senses; goodness, this really is Rimsky for the IMAX age, the brass- and timp-drenched climaxes simply crushing. The quieter moments are just as arresting, the Sultana’s beguiling narrative superbly evoked by the violin and harp.
As for ‘The Story of the Kalender Prince’ it’s packed with incident and colour, the many close-ups a reminder of just how virtuosic this piece is, and how exposed players are at times. There’s firm. characterful playing from the woodwinds, and the formidable battery of trombones sounds especially baleful. The big, bold recording handles these dynamic swings with aplomb, although anyone of a nervous disposition – or with unsympathetic neighbours – might want to reduce the volume by a couple of notches. As always, Nelsons is engrossed in the music, and it’s impossible not to succumb to his obvious and infectious enthusiasm.
That’s one of the unexpected joys of this concert; everyone is clearly having fun. What a change from those stiff-backed performers, stern of countenance, we see all too often. The tender music of ‘The Young Prince and the Young Princess’ is most eloquently done, and Nelsons shapes the dance-like episodes very persuasively. It’s the final movement, with its festival and shipwreck, that will take your breath away. The intimidating roar of this orchestra in full spate really confirms the sonic potential of Blu-ray; indeed, I’ve never heard that dash of spray, crack of sail and final cataclysm as powerfully realised as it is here. Those final, sinuous bars – as if enclosing these tales in parentheses – are simply overwhelming in their simplicity and charm.
Not surprisingly the audience demands – and gets – an encore in the shape of one of the Slavonic Dances from Dvor(ák’s Op. 46. It’s a polka, now winsome now trenchant, its storming conclusion a thrilling coda to an exhilarating concert. That said, Nelsons still looks as fresh as a daisy, and his players don’t seem to have wilted either. Despite the rather disappointing concerto I’m very impressed by this multi-talented Latvian; he can certainly batter one’s ear drums – the Rimsky is indeed a knock-out – but as the previous night’s Shostakovich Eighth and his 50th anniversary War Requiem so eloquently demonstrate, he can batter one’s heart as well.
A delightful overture, a competent concerto, and a Scheherazade to die for.
-- Dan Morgan, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 710204

  • UPC: 814337011024

  • Label: C Major

  • Composer: Antonín Dvořák, Frédéric Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

  • Conductor: Andris Nelsons

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

  • Performer: Yefim Bronfman